This brief reflection—almost spoken aloud—is a dialogue, which is to say, an attempt to reconcile the singular voice of Cristina Peri Rossi by outlining this voice in a nonbinary logic of thought. For this purpose, we propose a reconsideration of the idea/concept/notion of partir/parir1 present in her work as an element of a device that enables the shift of meaning in her texts from the first term to the second, and as a hallmark of the singular condition of her writing.
1. “To split / is always to split in two”: FRAGMENTATION/DISINTEGRATION.
We have been closely following the work of Cristina Peri Rossi (Montevideo, 1941) as readers for many years now. Nevertheless, we are still sometimes surprised by certain questions about her work that arise from the fruitful dialogue we have kept up over time, hopping from one continent to another and crossing the ocean between Spain, Uruguay, Mexico, and England.
So, in the midst of this postmodern boom of hybrid, fragmentary works, we asked ourselves, as a first excuse for reflection: how might one situate a body of work as vast and varied as Cristina Peri Rossi’s?
And our first answer is simple, since there are certain axes that seem to be constant in the flow of her work, especially when it comes to travel and exile (as metaphors, but also as realities): love, the relationship between writing and memory/temporality, and its possible functions in the development of her literary subjects.
Following from here, we first considered desire in Peri Rossi’s work as the vertebral axis of all these preceding literary axes, based on a concept drawn principally from two poems, titled “El viaje” and “Dialéctica de los viajes,” from the book Estado de exilio (2003). And, with the aim of tying together the themes outlined in this essay, we turn to the idea of partir—leaving, departing, splitting—present in these poems, as well as the idea of exile/departure/happiness/return in her novels La nave de los locos (1984) and La insumisa (2020). Our reflection led us to wonder, how might we think of partir—of splitting—in Peri Rossi’s writing?
Initially, we can draw a parallel between the idea of splitting from a country, the “splitting in two” implied by exile in her poetics, and the sensation of disintegration that comes with losing one’s beloved. In her writing, there is a recurring intent to regain a sensation of wholeness/happiness, a longing insistence ever conscious of the impossibility of fulfillment. One splits from a place because one wants to, but in wanting to the subject also splits from writing, one is divided upon writing: “Homesick forever / for the paradise before Babel” (1993).
Thus, in the poem “El viaje,” displacement and exile come together as a trope of division and fracture in the face of love, the self, and almost any other unitary element attempting to account for the split(ting). This excerpt serves as an example:
My first journey
was into exile (…)
I have traveler’s trauma
if I stay in the city I agonize
if I go
I’m afraid I will never come back
I shiver before I pack my suitcase
—how heavy is the indispensable—
Sometimes I would rather leave
Space distresses me like it does cats
is always to split in two.
In relation to the above, in Peri Rossi’s reflections on writing as much as in her representation of love, there appears a tension between recognizing the inevitability of fragmentation/the multiple and a desire to seek wholeness we might consider a longing for transcendence. We can read her metaphors of travel and exile as a repeated attempt to navigate this dialectical contradiction between the unitary and the multiple.
Her relentless search, therefore, is a devastating attempt to consign the act of writing as a fraudulent erotics (ever frustrated), hoping to acquire through language what could not be acquired (or what was lost) in the reality of experience. Ultimately, a loss. But in order to be lost, in the first place, “that which must be lost” had to exist—that imaginary and unitary oneness. Or did it?
In this sense, on the one hand, we note in this aspect of Perirossian writing the presence of a romantic inheritance—writing as a nostalgic act—putting in play the modern tension to account for a resignified, unitary past. So, her work is dominated by eccentric, neurotic, and obsessive characters; people unsatisfied in the present, who endlessly and compulsively—most often—long for that forgotten paradise.
Nonetheless, this longing always ends up sending these poor, beat-up, solitary heroes back to a time never matching the present: almost a sentence of exile.
Also starting from the journey, exile implies nostalgia for what is left behind and the desire or longing for wholeness in the future. Partir—splitting—always implies splitting in two, because the subject has to be divided between the unsatisfactory present and a past or future temporality in which Peri Rossi situates a mobile wholeness. This wholeness, though, could also be associated in her work with the hallmark of the search for an underlying eternity: little impermanent islands from which the Perirossian self might access more elevated, sublime, and transcendental states.
As the character Gordon says in La nave de los locos, “we always leave the place where we could be forever happy” (1984); that is, a utopian place that exists as it is only in our imagination.2 Thus, a place of exile, or rather a place for exile:
“I am an exile,” Ecks mumbled, choking in his glass as always, whenever asked a direct question.
“Splendid!” was Gordon’s comment. “So you also have been torn away from some place and not allowed to go back. Exile is hard to bear, isn’t it, my friend?”
“We have all been exiled from something or someone,” urged Ecks in a conciliatory fashion. “I think this is the human condition.”
“At night,” Gordon continued, “it’s always worse at night. I can’t stop thinking of that surface, that white surface flattened by my feet. Then, I thought I had so much time. I was bewitched and did not realize time was passing. And what is time after all? When one goes so far away one realizes that it is only a ridiculous convention…”
“There on the moon one forgets everything, my friend. The pangs of love, the space budget, the rent due, the childrens’ education, everything… Even death.” Gordon sounded solemn, and Ecks thought this was the proper state of mind for an astronaut, for a man who has glimpsed the beauty of space and has been forever deprived of it, condemned from then on to wander over the crowded earth in eternal longing.
“The terrible thing is not being able to go back,” said the astronaut.
“It has been said (was it Virgil or Horace?) that we always leave the place where we could be forever happy,” Ecks offered.
After reading the excerpt above, we find on this lunar sphere, white and compact, that space of possibilities, a romantic utopia lent meaning in the postmodern overcoming of an atomized space, but also a utopia now elucidated under the light of new findings by traditional literary subjects in which happiness/eternity are hallmarks of exile.
2. LOVE (avoids dispersion, the loss of exile): is the attempt to overcome fragmentation and achieve wholeness, the illusion of wholeness.
Recently, we found in the text of Peri Rossi’s work La insumisa (2020) an excerpt that drew our attention, on the above subject:
My exile did not start on the twentieth of October of nineteen hundred seventy-two, when the ship […] reached port in Barcelona, a smooth and glowing autumn morning, but a year later, on the thirtieth of September, when you and I split up […] When we went into exile together, it was really as if we had not gone into exile, as if we carried with ourselves all that which we had loved up to then […] I understood that exile was not just changing spaces, exile was splitting up with the person you love, ceasing to speak the same language (men and women in love have their own language, switching loves means switching dictionaries, and losing a love means losing a dialect).
Just as the loss of love and the loss of a country equal the loss of a language or “a dialect,” we observe in Peri Rossi’s work an attempt to overcome the loss of exile and love through writing. In several of her books, writing mends and reunifies dispersion, ordering madness in the face of the apparent chaos brought on by Babel.
Nonetheless, writing (like love) unravels the potentially destructive power of uniqueness, as the protagonist of Solitario de amor points out to Aída, the woman he loves: “Love is waste, love is excess. You cannot be in love and, at the same time, preserve yourself.”
Therefore, it is in writing where one navigates the tension between the destruction that can result from the splitting in two of love, loss of love, and exile, on the one hand, and the creative literary potential that lies within this splitting on the other.
3. “To remember / I had to split / and dream of returning”: journeys, exile, and nostalgia.
The splitting of a place—its departure—is what allows for memory; recollection through writing. That is to say, desire—or longing—rendered a condition necessary for writing.
Thus, in the poem “Dialéctica de los viajes” from Estado de exilio (2003), the tension between memory/exile/love/writing/splitting is accentuated.
I had to split.
So that memory would spill over
like a full jug
—the jug of an unreachable goddess—
I had to split.
To think of you
I had to split.
The sea opened up like a curtain
like the maternal womb
like the swollen placenta
slow nocturnal spheres shone in the sky
like signs of ancient writing
lost among papyri
and memory began to distill
memory poured out its liquor
its melancholic drug
its pearly shells
I had to split
and dream of returning
while never returning.
as long as you never come back.
4. PARTIR and PARIR: “The sea opened up like a curtain / like the maternal womb / like the swollen placenta.”
If we see the fact of splitting in two and of splitting as an act of traveling, of leaving something behind, we can also consider it a beginning, a starting point in its uniqueness. So, the womb in the above poem becomes the principal metaphor for this ever latent development of possibilities in which the feminine is reinvented as an object of loss/gain.
Thus, reflecting on the verse “to split is to split in two” allows us to consider the writer’s role as Peri Rossi conceives of it, with destruction and creation appearing as one in her work. Peri Rossi thereby creates new works, new tendencies, but without the gesture of destroying it all in the process, placing herself in a literary genealogy in dialogue with tradition. This gesture’s omission is no small matter: she thereby avoids becoming a patricidal writer. On the contrary, she takes up things from the past in her imagination and in her practice, offering a creation that does not destroy everything, but rather consigns fragments and puts them together within a singular womb. So, partir and partirse—splitting and splitting in two—turn into a new image, form, and verb: a parir—a birthing—as we see in “Dialéctica de los viajes.”
Here, creation and destruction become inextricable, and Peri Rossi knows it. In her allusions to birth we see the act of birthing in the process of the journey, the union of a destructive and a creative force as the maximum potential of the possible: being two, almost in unison.
Instituto de Profesores Artigas-Udelar, Uruguay & University of York, United Kingdom